Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Wherein J. C. Explains Almost Nothing: Intellectual Folktales of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries Revisited, April 2016

(On which Jerry Cullum is keeping some kind of assertion of intellectual property rights, although he would like to have the actual information circulated)

It would be wonderful to be able to write the kind of magisterial essays that George Steiner turned out at age thirty-five or so, because there is a need for them. However, Steiner himself hasn’t turned out many of them at age eighty-five plus, so perhaps I will be excused for turning out blog posts instead in my own advancing age.


It has occurred to me in the past couple of days (as it has on several previous occasions) that nearly all the contemporary explanations for things turn out to be less interesting than what we thought were the explanations fifty or sixty years ago. This in turn makes me vaguely suspicious of the present-day explanations, for it seems all too convenient that our explanations, based on new interpretations of evidence, should fit so well with our current inclinations towards cynicism leavened with witty irony.

But let that pass, as Shakespeare says. Some people are still defending interesting explanations; after I had rushed through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Botticelli Reimagined” exhibition in which subsequent centuries’ shallow imitations of Botticelli are multiplied ad infinitum, I found that the museum shop had Eugene Lane-Spollen’s 2014 book Under the Guise of Spring: The message hidden in Botticelli’s Primavera, wherein Lane-Spollen presents the idea that Botticelli’s painting contains a systematic symbolism based on the Renaissance Hermetism of which Warburg Institute scholars such as Edgar Wind and Frances Yates made so much, and which more recent scholars have so systematically tried to debunk as not really being much of an influence on Renaissance art and literature at all.

The history of esotericism is being rewritten, sometimes more interestingly as well as defensibly—although how occult groups in the Enlightenment became proto-socialist in some cases and proto-authoritarian in other cases may be so obscurely entwined in eighteenth-century culture and politics as to make the eyes glaze over.

But by and large, the fascinating assumptions once made about a host of mysteries now seem to be almost entirely wrong. The Hieronymus Bosch quincentenary exhibition in his hometown seems devoted to proving how immersed Bosch was in the order of late-medieval society; while in the 1960s everyone supposed Bosch was encoding the secrets of a fifteenth-century heretical order, now it is thought that Bosch was a respected artist fulfilling commissions from religious orders and creating allegories about the road to hell that may have owed much to hallucinations born of psychedelic moldy bread, but nothing to heretical doctrine.

That interpretations seems to raise more questions than it answers, but today’s scholars seem content to let the questions sit there. The cognitive status of the Garden of Earthly Delights still seems puzzling to me; why the multiracial nudity in a blissful condition set between a lost Paradise on the one side and a thoroughly humorous and theatrical Hell on the other? The Haywain’s variation on the Ship of Fools seems more acceptably orthodox, as well as comic—many are the readily recognizable roads to damnation through lust, greed, and sheer lack of paying attention.

And what’s with the disturbingly imperfect Garden of Eden, in which Eve and Adam are in communion with the Trinity, but the animals are doing their Darwinian thing, killing one another with blissful abandon? Bosch’s prelapsarian paradise is as opposed as can be imagined to the postmillennial vision of Isaiah that Edward Hicks turned into the Peaceable Kingdom—and maybe this fits into the pessimism that Huizinga limned so long ago in The Waning of the Middle Ages, so at odds with the apocalyptic optimism of the radical wing of the Reformation. But I am not sure I have time any longer to figure out the exact relationship, which will be overturned by later decades of scholarly opinion, anyway.

Bosch (1450-1516) and Botticelli (1445-1510) were contemporaries (which is an interesting thought; Primavera, 1477-1482; The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-1515). Both of them seem to have had workshops engaged in learning how to copy their greatest hits; viewers annoyed at having to go to Madrid to see the original Garden of Earthly Delights will find in the North Brabant show an acceptable version from the hands of Bosch’s own studio assistants. Botticelli set his apprentices to making versions of Venus minus the backgrounds, and two of these paintings are set side by side in the Victoria and Albert, one of them instructively awkward.

John Dee was another story, a full century later (1527-1608 or 1609). Although he made some memorable marginal drawings in some of the few thousand books in his library, he was not an artist, although this seems to be one of the few things that he wasn’t. Developing new tricks of navigation that suited well his advocacy of British settlement in North America, he researched widely in history, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, the Greco-Roman inheritance that was still being rediscovered, and occultism. There was, however, nothing all that hidden about the occultism; since it was taken for granted that angels existed and had communicated with human beings in ancient times, Dee supposed that if they could be made to disclose their own superior knowledge, it would speed his own researches immeasurably.

Hence the presence of magic mirrors and crystal balls in the exhibition of John Dee’s Lost Library, the Royal College of Physicians’ contribution to this early-2016 concatenation of reinterpretations of history. Dee’s penchant for conjuration did cause discomfort among more conservatively orthodox types, and some of his traits may have found their way into the Elizabethan version of the myth of Dr. Faustus.

This exhibition, at least, accepts that Dee’s multidisciplinary quest for global explanations has to be taken seriously as making sense within the intellectual purview of his time, rather than reduced, as in one scholar’s recent remark, to the sniffily dismissive “today we think of him as the progenitor of the idea of the British Empire, rather than as a magician.” [Paraphrased from memory, as I don’t know where to look for the original comment.]

Huh? He cast the queen’s horoscope, and he tried to put together an expedition to what are now the maritime provinces of Canada. Anybody got a problem with that, apart from the postcolonial question? He did lots of things, all of which seemed like good ideas at the time.

While I am on the topic of more disappointing explanations of once-romanticized phenomena, I should mention Ronald Hutton’s summary in Pagan Britain of present-day debunkings of the Green Men and sheela na gigs of whom Margaret Murray and Lady Raglan made so much circa 1934—interpretations that had considerable cultural consequences thirty or forty years later. Seems now that the leaf-and-branch-sprouting men may be souls lost in the forest of the world, or turning into it; and the females spectacularly spreading their legs in church carvings may just be typical misogynistic warnings against the temptations of lust, after all.

Labyrinths are a little more complicated. Have a look at Hutton.


[This is where we shift topics just a bit. Since readers of similar blog posts in past years seem to be puzzled, or convinced I have gone off chasing rabbits, I am reverting to the good old stratagem of using Roman numerals to alert my prose-dazed readership to a slight change in focus.]

I spent most of 2015 writing a prolix essay about shifts in cultural fashions in the fifty years since Mircea Eliade wrote a rather off-the-cuff lecture on the topic. (The precipitous decline of Eliade’s reputation, not always for defensibly analytical reasons, is one of the cultural fashions in question.) I needn’t try to summarize what was already a grotesquely condensed summary, but I should mention that that essay (which the truly committed can download for free from Cluj University Press as part of Mihaela Gligor, ed., From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference: Studies on History of Religions) took for granted the old sociology-of-knowledge assertion that what we wrongly think of as “reality” is socially constructed, although the physical world itself is not.

So I started puzzling yesterday over the question of just how much could be rescued of the vast intellectual synthesis propounded by several almost completely forgotten books. I have puzzled over this previously, and realized that the answer itself is likely to be unproductive, because just because a hypothesis is correct, it does not mean it is plausible. (See: “plausibility structures,” in Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s classic, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.) This is not quite the same as the famous argument in physics over whether a hypothesis is crazy enough, because it is taken for granted in the physical sciences that certain types of hypothesis are intrinsically counterintuitive. In less mathematically based sciences, the deceptions of ordinary language ensure that prejudice masquerading as intuition will typically make certain that the conclusions reached will be expressed in the rhetoric of a contemporary cultural fashion. This does not mean that the conclusion is completely without validity. It means that even when we devise experiments in les sciences humaines, we are necessarily dealing with soft evidence (but why do we assume that mathematically based evidence is “hard evidence,” itself an emotionally comforting metaphor? The cognitive status of speculative mathematical extrapolation is itself in contention among physicists.).

So maybe I shouldn’t try to compare the various editions of Herbert Read’s Icon and Idea: The Function of Art in the Development of Human Consciousness, a book that, like Andre Malraux’s The Voices of Silence, pretty much tried to correlate everything we knew about art with everything we knew about the development of the successive stages of consciousness. (That there were such stages was an idea set forth by Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness, to cite only one such book from the middle of the twentieth century.)

The history of consciousness is a notion that has been, as they used to say, problematized. For the most part, the day is long gone when the neurobiologists and the art historians and the psychologists got together to compare notes as they did in the heyday of the now much diminished Eranos conferences (see Hans Thomas Hakl, Eranos: An Alternative Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century). For this and other reasons, a major problem of recent books about what used to be called the human condition is that the evolutionary biologists writing about art and literature don’t know much about art and literature, and the dogmatically social-constructionist theorists of art and literature don’t know very much about the biology they are at such pains to refute. As I said above, what we call reality is socially constructed, but the world in which we live, and about which we have inevitable illusions, is not.

But because I simply cannot learn enough to evaluate the various cross-disciplinary analyses being put forth (I cannot even learn enough to manipulate the rapidly changed permutations of the digital technology by which we learn about such developments and by which we have machines on which to write about it), I don’t know what to do with such fascinating just-published books as I find in the Spring 2016 MIT Press catalogue (the rediscovery of which finally coalesced all the disconnected reflections I had been striving to put into some kind of sequential order).

Todd E. Feinberg and Jon M. Mallatt give us The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience, the hypothesis of which is that “simple reflexive behaviors evolved into a unified world of subjective experience” in the “’Cambrian explosion’ of animal diversity.” To continue to quote the catalogue description, “From this they deduce that all vertebrates are and have always been conscious—not just humans and other mammals, but also every fish, reptile, amphibian, and bird. Considering invertebrates, they find that arthropods (including insects and probably crustaceans) and cephalopods (including the octopus) meet many of the criteria for consciousness. The obvious and conventional-wisdom-shattering implication is that consciousness evolved simultaneously but independently in the first vertebrates and possibly arthropods more than half a billion years ago.”

To distinguish human consciousness from all these other forms of consciousness (and this seems to be the year in which suddenly a plethora of books attempt to analyze the inner lives of other species), we would have to go to another book in the MIT catalogue, Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, with the understanding that agreeing with it depends on accepting the tenets of the Minimalist Program for defining what constitutes language, and that the biolinguistic evidence for the evolution of human language may demand the study of “evidence from nonhuman animals, in particular vocal learning in songbirds.”

And that, whether coincidentally or not, brings us to the book listed on the page facing the announcement for Feinberg and Mallatt’s book: Tim Hodgkinson’s Music and the Myth of Wholeness: Towards a New Aesthetic Paradigm. Here we have a contribution from someone working in the field instead of in the laboratory; Hodgkinson was the 1968 co-founder with Fred Frith of “the politically and musically radical group Henry Cow.” (So here we have, also, someone else from the ‘60s trying to bring the dialogue up to date by “discard[ing] the conventional idea of the human being as an integrated whole in favor of a rich and complex field in which incompatible kinds of information—biological and cultural—collide. It is only when we acknowledge the clash of body and language within human identity that we can understand how art brings forth the special form of subjectivity potentially present in aesthetic experience.”

So this appears to be something like a contemporary attempt to bring Herbert Read’s intellectual program up to date. But Hodgkinson is belaboring a point that many thinkers take for granted these days, that “wholeness” is a myth and our lives are a succession of contending influences rather than the peregrinations of a single unified entity called the self.

As I have said many times before now, nobody knows enough. And I am not sure that my own knowledge would be significantly expanded if I attempted to go beyond the capsule summaries in the MIT catalogue, for I lack the interpretive apparatus to judge the adequacy of the evidence these books present.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Age of Earthquakes: In Lieu of a Review

The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present slipped into the global dialogue nearly a year ago now without much notice, in spite of being a three-person collaboration including a couple of intergenerational culture heroes of the artworld, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Shumon Basar was the name I had to look up, which turns out to be embarrassing since something by him was published in the same issue of Art Papers that marked my return to writing for that magazine in spite of my misginings about feeling completely out of touch. Self-illustrative intuition.

For persons of a certain age (okay, I really mean “for me”), the book is a vertiginous experience: it is so obviously an hommage to Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s 1967 experiment, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.

The Medium is the Massage was a book about the end of the age of the book, the rise of televisual media; and Fiore’s inspired design escorted the reader, or more accurately the looker, through McLuhan’s dizzying ideas and into the world in which he or she or ze or they already lived. It was above all a lovely physical object about a world that was increasingly immaterial, a labyrinth of moving pictures flickering on movie and television screens and sounds plus spoken or sung words conveyed through wired-up speakers and transistor radios.

I was so unsettled by the visual quotations in Coupland, Obrist, and Basar’s book that I Googled a PDF of The Medium Is the Massage and after being annoyed by the anomalous cover packaging of this digitized version of a later edition (the quintessential Quentin Fiore white-lettering-on-black cover was a key part of the experience—a book about a world of saturated-color images at metaphoric warp speed, in which all the images coming at the reader in fast-paced page succession were in black and white),
I settled into the irritating experience of seeing double-page spreads at what looked to be very slightly less than 100%. (I wasn’t irritated consciously enough to look at the top of the window and see if this was so.) I had scrolled through just enough to confirm my recollection of the startling quality of the original book when the remainder of the pages contained only the text “Whoops! Something went wrong and this page did not download.”

It was one of those glorious bridge moments between The Medium Is the Massage and The Age of Earthquakes that falls into the category of “You can’t make this stuff up.”

In any case, the latter book is also a vertiginous sensory experience, though perhaps twice as vertiginous for those for whom it brings back the experience of being a college senior and holding a book that tried to illustrate the weighty theory, only semi-intelligible, that Understanding Media had conveyed only a year or two before.

For one thing, The Age of Earthquakes is a sexy object. The American edition, anyway; the rainbow-sheen reflection of the silvery-inked cover recalls the cover of the monumental exhibition catalogue for a turn-of-the-millennium show, which show I cannot quite remember, and I am not going to put down the laptop and go hunt for the catalogue. An image search of keywords didn’t reveal the name of it.
In any case, the heft of this little book is quite remarkable; the trio of authors obviously put considerable thought into the weight of the paper stock, because something that looks as if it should be feather-light is quite substantial, in a size that fits the hand. (Again, in the American edition, so I am basing my supposition on inadequate information; but the American hard-copy edition was published three weeks prior to the British hard-copy edition, which I have seen only onscreen—again, at less than 100% of the page size of the physical object. The onscreen preview of the American print edition is more than 100% on my laptop, and each page needs to be scrolled down to see all of it. Interesting…)

Having belatedly discovered the book in late 2015 through the Douglas Coupland page on Amazon (I somehow missed Art Papers’ March 7 Facebook post congratulating Basar on its publication), I am particularly amused by the page spread updating Jenny Holzer’s truism: “Protect me from what Amazon suggests I want.”

So this is a book about the mental habits of a fast-changing age of digital media in the same way that the McLuhan/Fiore book was about the mental habits of a fast-changing age of analog media. And in the same way, it contains a good many trenchant observations alongside remarks that are not meant to be taken seriously, or at least cannot be taken seriously even if the authors intended them to be taken seriously.
This is why I am far more forgiving of the book’s possible flaws than are the reviewers I’ve read thus far online. ARTnews senior editor M. H. Miller takes the authors to task for offering two contradictory opinions about the Internet a few pages apart, even though one of them is more or less documented and serious and the other is obviously written as the kind of preposterous opinion that people write in Facebook posts at three o’clock in the morning—drunk Facebooking being one of several updated social-media versions of drunk dialing.

Miller calls out our boys for the egregiously unfortunate bad timing of a page that reads, “Rodney King was the YouTube of 1993. If it happened today would it be able to compete with everything else?” Although (as Miller admits) the book was on its way into print before the succession of viral iPhone documentations of police brutality, Miller points out that not even the chronology in this remark is correct: Obrist/Coupland/Basar are remembering the year that the Rodney King video was incorporated into the Whitney Biennial, not the year it first burst into public consciousness, which was 1991. In fact, Spike Lee had already used it in the title sequence of Malcolm X in 1992.

I had failed to notice the erroneous date, but it seems to me to resemble the systematic misinformation with which I am bombarded every time I open Facebook. This species of self-confidently wrong and questionably grammatical meme shows up more times per day than I am capable of guessing an average number for.

I might find a book reviewer who gets the point if I kept scrolling through the Google results, but three reviews into the process, I am flabbergasted at how much the reviewers hate the book, and how much they seem incapable of understanding a book about being “smupid” that is so illustrative of its own premise that at least some of it has to be deliberate, even if some of it is just the usual phenomenon of being unable to see our own blindness. (The condition of “smupidity” in which the digital present leaves us is complemented by “stuartness”—the one being “smart+stupid” and the other “stupid+smart.” The book is both at once, or at least in quick succession, which is part of the point. One reviewer wrote, if I remember rightly, “If I wanted something that looked like the Internet, I’d go to, uh, the Internet,” and another wrote “I read books to get away from this kind of shit,” which is so unendurably thickheaded that I would have thrown the review across the room had it not been on my laptop screen, making it a bad impulse to which to succumb.)

The pacing of the book makes visible and forces into awareness all the onscreen phenomena with which we are too familiar to bother to reflect upon them. This is a longstanding practice in experimental literature and design, and I cannot believe that book reviewers not only for a major West Coast newspaper but for a venerable art magazine should be so incapable of comprehending this book’s place in that equally venerable history.

But then, we live in an age of growing illiteracy, don’t we? Visual illiteracy as well as textual. An age in which the information we have literally at our fingertips is only the information that we already know we can have at our fingertips.

The Age of Earthquakes is annoyingly smart-ass and conceptually smug, but that comes with the territory of being part of the artworld, and should be discounted appropriately. I like the moments in which it shakes up my perception more than the moments in which it reminds me of how insufferable a place the artworld really is. (One reason I usually just sit here with my books and my laptop until an art object comes along that makes me want to interact with it in spite of the insufferable social environment that surrounds it.)
Too bad nobody who has had it dumped on their desk as a review copy had their perception shaken as a result. Are even senior editors of art magazines what the McLuhan generation called P.O.B.’s? It is quite significant that the many, many definitions of that acronym in an online urban dictionary do not include Print-Oriented Bastard.

...Okay, update at 4:32 a.m. on December 5, as I go in quest of images to add to this post: Shumon Basar's interview at offers a linear, highly intelligent disquisition on the themes of the book, along with the name of the man who probably made those decisions about the paper stock and page size (although I wonder who decided on the radical disparity between the covers of the U.S. and U.K. editions).

Although his name does not appear on the front cover, Wayne Daly is this book's Quentin Fiore. So now you know.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Joe Dreher''s "Patriot" at Decatur Arts Alliance: More of a Note Than a Review, Thanks to Time Constraints

Joe Dreher has experienced a phenomenal rise in the metro Atlanta artworld (where emerging artists are emerging at a happily remarkable rate) since beginning a career as a muralist. His show at the Decatur Arts Alliance, up through November 30, 2015, illustrates his capacities in smaller mixed-media artworks.

An atmospheric homage to the life of Martin Luther King Jr. (Kings) indicates his possibilities in one direction of development. His icons of everyday African-American Atlantans are indicative of a direction that could be extended indefinitely.

The photo transfers on paper are evocative portraits, but the three paintings transforming their subjects into something like secular saints against the type of gold background associated with Byzantine and medieval devotional portraits. Atlanta, in which the subject’s particular beard, glasses, and facial structure have led viewers to (mis)identify him as Spike Lee, Cornel West, or Malcolm X, is particularly indicative of Dreher’s ability to turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

In a world less burdened with intrusive commitments, I would write a great deal more about Dreher’s work, but I’m confident that art writers will have ample opportunity to evaluate his work in greater detail in the year to come and the years after that.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Searching for the Queen of Sheba, and Other Enlightening Entertainments

Jerry Cullum

Social media have turned us all into third- or fourth-rate aphorists. Le bon mot is about all we are capable of when we are not running the words together with the numeral sign serving as a hashtag mark. #lebonmot #runningthewordstogether #andtheresnotimetothink

Clichés are what serve when we cannot think of an aphorism.

This is all apropos of my inability to turn out the perfectly brilliant reflective essay that is deserved by a couple of recent examples of what the scholars barbarously call material culture (a phrase that they should have realized sounded like the flip side of “historical materialism” but scholars are noted for having very little feel for linguistic resonances)—but since that is the phrase (amplified lately by the even more barbarous “material religion”), let me explain that I wanted to talk about the kinds of physical objects from distant history that those of us operating out of the city of Atlanta rarely get the chance to look at up close and personal. (These days, we more typically view them postage-stamp-size in digital images on our phones, which only works if the topic being investigated is postage stamps.)

Since “Habsburg Splendor” at the High Museum is getting ample press without anyone reflecting on the oddity of its collection of art and objects owned by the members of the Habsburg Dynasty, or on what the paintings and suits of armor and robes and uniforms and vessels made from a rhinoceros horn or a sea coconut say about Central European culture or the culture of Europe at large in the centuries in which the Habsburgs flourished…

…it is unnecessary to attempt that epic task at the moment.

I shall instead try to promote “Searching for the Queen of Sheba,” at Fernbank Museum of Natural History through January 3, as a perfectly credible opportunity to get a look at an entire body of art and other aspects of ancient cultures that we in the American South do not usually have much of a chance to examine at all, never mind in depth.

Using the legend and truth of the story of the Queen of Sheba as a conceptual hook was a brilliant idea; in the first place, the story has scriptural warrant in all three religions of the Abrahamic revelation (that would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and a good deal of currency in Ethiopia, where the descent of the royal house from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was a longstanding article of faith.

Hence the emphasis of the exhibition on the archaeological remains of Saba (Sheba) and the other kingdoms of South Arabia (the presumptive origin of that Queen of the South who paid the splendiferous visit to King Solomon), with side glances across the Red Sea at the other ancient empires of the Incense Road. The wealth generated by the caravan trade in gold, frankincense, and myrrh was sufficient to support levels of royal splendor far beyond the spectacularly lovely, innovative but less ostentatious mud-brick high-rises currently being bombed into ruins in the latest conflict.

It is good for any number of reasons to be enlightened as to the depth and longevity of the culture of the South Arabian kingdoms of classical antiquity (they were among the exporters with whom Imperial Rome ran a persistent trade deficit), even if the objects with which the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale “G. Tucci” was willing to part temporarily are mostly smaller and sometimes inadequately provenanced. (It would be intriguing to know more about the acquisition of objects prior to or apart from systematic archaeological excavations in this part of the world, where the search for historical clarification has been put on hold by present-day tragic events.)

The beautifully designed catalogue rounds out the exhibition in essays that further elucidate the scope of the Sheba legends and the known historical realities behind a figure who has been inextricably confused with the historically attested Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a more distant city on the Incense Road, also in the headlines in the past year or so.

Although “Searching for the Queen of Sheba” features an incense burner from western Syria, anyone hoping for examples of the remarkable art of Palmyra will have to resign themselves to remembering the incredible array of Palmyra portraiture that Fernbank presented in 2002, in the oddly named “Syria: Land of Civilizations” blockbuster, which toured various North American museums in complement to the turn of the millennium in the commonly accepted calendar.

But the point is well taken that, legend or truth, the story of the Queen of Sheba has stirred individual and collective cultural imaginations for so many millennia that an entire genre of what this exhibition labels as “tourist art” arose in Ethiopia long before mass tourism was ever thought of. Tourist art arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to demand by the influx of foreigners carrying out Menelik II’s modernization program; the 44-panel narrative painting reproduced here was painted for an American delegation by the young self-taught artist Balaccaw Yemar (I have Anglicized slightly the catalogue’s transliteration from Amharic). Later anonymous examples of tourist art omit many episodes of this story of how the Queen of Sheba founded the royal house of Ethiopia.

Bizarrely, the catalogue caption dates the piece as “1894/5 – 1957,” which are Yemar’s dates. We know he didn’t produce the panels as a newborn infant, nor did he produce it after his death, but it is difficult to believe that it found its way into the Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico “Luigi Pigorini” without some more exact indication of the approximate date of its creation.

I, for one, would like to know much, much more about the history of Ethiopian tourist art and the biography of Balaccaw Yemar. This is too much to ask of a popularizing exhibition, but Yemar seems to be absent from other scholarship.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"Epiphany Is Not a Blazing Light": Romy Aura Maloon at Beep Beep Gallery, Atlanta

Old habits die hard. Apart from the unrevised opening paragraphs, this non-review has been turning into more of a meandering, baffled draft every time I edit it—because it is hard to quit being a reviewer. The resonantly resolved universal statements, the descriptions reaching a convincing-sounding conclusion—we are simply not supposed to sound like we don't know what on earth we are doing here, and so we don't. But it is a literary strategy, and while I admire it in the essays of George Steiner, from whom I have actually learned much that I would not otherwise have known, I can now look up and see the points at which Steiner's grasp far exceeds his reach—where the flow of the rhetoric simply demands the conclusions to which he should not genuinely have come, when he should instead have been asking an unanswered question. Sometimes he writes an aphorism that is simply nonsensical, and more often states something that is a far deeper truth than he has earned from what he has actually stated in the preceding text, in both cases because he is George Steiner. And I, as in the shtick from the comedian's sketch, am not.

My non-reviews are about questions, my questions, not answers. My hope is that the readers will find their own questions and their own genuinely valid answers. This is not the same thing as saying that all answers are equally valid, a tactic that annoys me in artist's talks; it is a way of saying that some questions take longer to formulate than others, and no one person can even get the questions right, much less answer them; it is a collective endeavor in which the type of perceptiveness we bring to the enterprise determines the type of question we shall find most interesting, and hence find ourselves sufficiently committed to be able to answer if we work at it.

I have been struck with the regularity with which I encounter personal mythologies that I simply do not understand. W. B. Yeats, being a poet, at least provided a key to his mythology in A Vision but even that requires a literary critic to give us a paraphrase, or else a great deal of time such as I do not ever have to do the reading and interpreting myself. (Same problem with William Blake; deeply indebted to his visionary insights, I nevertheless am never quite sure who the Zoas are or who Enitharmon is or why those feet in ancient time till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.)

Hence my bewilderment with several recent art exhibitions in Atlanta, some of which provide keys to the mystery that don’t seem to fit the locks. (I have the same key-and-lock problem with my storage unit quite often, so I am prepared to believe it's just me.)

I am writing about three of the exhibitions (four, actually) for, and soon, so I’ll describe the only one that I am not reviewing. I feel less disturbed about not understanding it when I see from the review on that the reviewer makes no effort to explicate what it all means, either, though she offers clues as to how she extracts possible lessons from it. There is clearly an enigma here, one I didn’t even understand when the artist explained it.

Reading the description of Romy Aura Maloon’s earlier work, quite articulately discussed on her website, makes clear how little the work in “Epiphany Is Not a Blazing Light,” which closes on June 20, 2015 at Beep Beep Gallery, has to do with the questions of cultural displacement and traumatized social and political identities with which her earlier work deals. Even though it uses some of the same materials, the difference in symbolism makes clear that this is a less cultural/political approach to issues of life and death. There is something closer to biology and to individual psychology going on.

The proper response to this realization is “Well, duh,” because a look at the Martin Espada poem that begins with that phrase makes clear that the great issues of wartime trauma are irrelevant to the epiphanies that come with comic books on battlefronts and/or Walt Whitman’s poetry (provocatively written as Whit-man) devoted to honoring life in the midst of armed conflict. Epiphanies come from small acts of resistance to the iron laws of history and the vast collective forces that crush individual human destinies beneath the immense catastrophes they engender. So this exhibition is not completely unrelated to Maloon's earlier sociopolitical interests, after all.

We already know, from what the artist said to those of us who attended the opening, that much if not all of the work is a response to the death of someone near and dear to her, and it may be necessary to know the biographical details to untangle the allegory. Certainly there seem to be mysteries of image that, as is the case in poems from Tennyson's In Memoriam to Rumi's elegies for Shams to a host of other literary works (and, I'm sure, in a good many other bodies of visual art that I am not remembering at the moment), might be elucidated if we only knew the triggering circumstances. But the issues being symbolized seem deeper than the accidents of personal biography. Hence my frustration at my inability to prise out those issues from what is clearly a worked-out set of personal symbols (there is an artist's statement that I read at the time of the opening, but I found it difficult to relate the statement to specific works and specific symbols—again, my fault entirely).

Sitting spectacularly near the gallery entrance, the tree growing out of a handbuilt hospital bed comes closest to interpretable public, historically grounded symbolism. Knowing that the charred wood was easier to produce than other material alternatives does not change the potent symbolism of a bed of pain, perhaps a deathbed, pierced by a standard symbol of the persistent force of life that renews itself every season. It's a quiet (I meant to write "quite," but I believe in Freudian typing errors) brilliant beginning.

I suppose the adjacent animal skulls hidden behind white organza (? I am terrible at identifying fabrics, and I have lost the checklist—no, actually I didn't request a printout of the labels, now that I think of it) can be interpreted in several different ways…the hangings remind anyone with long acquaintance with hospitals of the curtains that sometimes surround hospital beds, especially when medical or nursing procedures need to be closed off to casual observers. The color is the color of mourning and funerals in Asia, but the color of weddings and bridal veils in Europe and America. For all of that, the visible bones make it clear this is meant to be funereal, even if it might or might not signify a funereal celebration of life, as implied by the red flowers piled in a heap beneath the hanging fabric—these flowers, a standard symbol in Maloon's earlier work, are the color of fresh blood, a shade of red that is also a standard symbol of life and/or joy in more than one culture. The heavy chains from which the bones are suspended suggest the weight of imprisonment in a diseased body, or perhaps do not suggest that at all.

I could flounder around in this manner, trying to make up stories that make sense of the human silhouette tied by similar chains to red-flower coyote sculptures, or the drawings of roses and snarling dogs and such, but I can’t. I have no idea what all this is supposed to mean. The visceral power of the images doesn’t communicate any conceptually clear thought to me. Again, if I had the time to reflect on the interconnections of the imagery, it might, but as it is, it doesn't.

The plates in the “Parasites” series also deliver a powerful feeling of queasiness without really communicating a message, in my case. The biting and sucking insects that are meticulously limned on these functional objects that are so frequently converted to wall decorations make this a series that defeats any memories of decorative plates on parental walls—the imagery is so exquisitely rendered as to be beautiful but simultaneously repellent. Each plate also has a blob of kiln-fired glass that evokes various associations, none of them pleasant. Combined with the equally unpleasant ceramic heads nestled amid decaying floral matter (or they were when I saw the show weeks ago, anyway—I think; I am forced to consult the photograph in the review to refresh my memory of these), this stuff gets down to the nitty-gritty of disease and bodily decay. The symbolic stench of mortality hangs heavy over this exhibition.

But the details defeat me. I couldn’t possibly write a review of this exhibition. I used to be good at finessing such problems. Now I am not.

preliminary notes about Nexus Press and its not yet written history

Notes in Lieu of a Review: “Endless Road: A Look at Nexus Press” at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

The facts I chose not to spend time researching while writing this exploration have now been provided by Cathy Fox in this review:

The history of Nexus Press needs to be brushed against the grain, as Walter Benjamin said of interpreting history in general. But first we need to know that there is a history, and “Endless Road: A Look at Nexus Press,” at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through July 25, gives us a good start in that direction.

When and how Nexus Press started in the 1970s is a fascinating story, but not really one we need to know in order to understand what it became. The exhibition that curator Daniel Fuller has wrested from the archives presents some of the presses themselves, pieces of technology from which it should be impossible to create the kind of books that the people who ran the press produced from them—and I am not going to name those people here, because my memory is faulty and I simply haven’t the time to assign credit where credit is due. The fact that Jo Anne Paschall could almost certainly recount the history in a few lapidary sentences gives me hope that someone will correct my lapse; that is the beauty of online writing.

What it is more important to do is to assess the legacy left by this remarkable enterprise, and that is a task left implicit by an exhibition that is admittedly no more than a start. It doesn’t even comprise a complete inventory of Nexus Press publications, although it certainly covers more than just the highlights. Rare books are presented in page-turning videos (not an oxymoron, they’re videos of the books being displayed to the viewer, page by page). The other volumes are available for perusal without benefit of white gloves, just as they were originally made available and as many of them still are—a number of titles appear in stacks of books available for purchase in the exhibition shop.

These books were always experimental and sometimes sumptuous, but they were distinctly examples of the contemporary category of artist’s books rather than the rarefied collectibles called “livres d’artiste.” Even when they did not derive from the tradition of cheap multiples from which the artist’s book tradition derived, they were not intended to be precious objects, no matter how intricately lovely some of them were and are.

Now they need to be looked at as examples for the twenty-first century. Some of them were unknowing forerunners of a conversation between photography and fiction, or documentary photography and the subjective narrator—Bill Burke’s I Want to Take Picture and Mine Fields established a genre of their own, while some of Clifton Meador’s books (later ones that are apparently being held in abeyance for some hypothetical Part Two of the Nexus Press story) seem in retrospect to have been in dialogue with W. G. Sebald’s contemporaneous novels with anomalous photographs.

Nobody has tried to analyze where these books were situated in the global context into which they were inserted. It was not necessary to wait for the five books produced for the 1996 Cultural Olympiad (of which the box of cards by Frederic Bruly Bouabré remains a particular favorite) for Nexus Press to welcome the world. (“Atlanta welcomes the world” was a popular Olympic-year slogan.) It had already welcomed the world, and the world had welcomed it, even if most locals remained blissfully unaware of the dialogue.

The press published titles by globally known artists from Felipe Ehrenberg to Johanna Drucker, plus such widely recognized early ventures as a justly celebrated tribute to P. H. Polk. It also produced an extraordinary quantity of ambitious small projects (termed “tailgaters” because they were printed on what would otherwise have been leftover scraps when the books were trimmed) by its interns, some of whom have become famous in their own right and others of whom seem to have disappeared from the historical record. This exhibition restores them to public recognition.

When Nexus Press came along, Atlanta already had a tradition of small literary presses, most of them short-lived but soon succeeded by others. They were, however, producing conventional chapbooks and/or consciously old-school letterpress combinations of text and visual art. The wealth of visual experimentation that Nexus Press brought to bear has never been equaled in Atlanta, and since its premature disappearance a bit over a decade ago, no one has quite had the resources to bring its example into the fully-fledged digital era. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that its legacy is being carried on in a different key by Dust-to-Digital, whose rescued vintage recordings have typically been accompanied by innovatively designed books and packaging that recall Nexus Press in its finest moments.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

biology and the baroque, and/or prisoners of matter: two shows at bill lowe in atlanta

"Biology and the Baroque" and "Prisoners of Matter" at Bill Lowe Gallery

a non-review essay by Jerry Cullum

I have long expressed my bewilderment (it goes beyond bemusement) at the incapacity of theorists to understand the dialectic between personality type, historical circumstances, and cultural conditioning. Anyone who wants a shorthand look at this dialectic might consider the artistic career of Francis Picabia, who shifted seamlessly from Impressionism to Cubism to Dada to figuration to, bewilderingly to some critics, paintings copying photographs from pornographic magazines, then abstraction. The bewildered critics fail to note the dates during which Picabia produced paintings that reportedly adorned Algerian brothels during the dark Occupation years of 1940 to 1944, and the other extraordinary shifts in style and subject matter likewise reflect the response of an extraordinarily fluid and trickster-minded personality to the major cultural and political shifts of the twentieth century.

I bring all this up at the beginning of an art non-review (I shall, as I increasingly do, reserve ultimate judgment because I am not sure whether I have any) because I deeply regret that we apparently do not have anything resembling a reliable personality test. It would be incredibly useful if we could say openly which personality types from which cultural and historical circumstances would be most likely to respond to a given body of work. The greatest art bridges centuries and circumstances, but even there, there are people who will never enjoy certain types of art no matter how much they come to understand its importance, and who will enjoy other types of art even after they understand why they should not find it enjoyable.

All of this is more or less a necessary preface to any reflection on the extraordinarily titled duo of solo shows that Bill Lowe Gallery has, in the wall text, combined into the title and subtitle “Biology and the Baroque: Prisoners of Matter.” I attended the opening after an afternoon of perusing an online summary of the arguments made in a two-day conference at Rice University about “Gnostic Counter Cultures,” so I was primed to read the art and its ideas in a certain way. The conference dealt with the inheritance and persistence of Gnostic ideas that we are, indeed, prisoners of matter, needing some means of liberation from what Emory University anthropologist Melvin Konner, who may be upset at being cited in the same sentence as Gnosticism, once called “biological constraints on the human spirit.” I use the subtitle of Konner’s early book The Tangled Wing to make the point that it is possible to believe that we have a spirit that is biologically constrained without believing that there is a transcendent dimension into which we can escape from those constraints.

Human creativity is one of the traditional means by which we slip the surly bonds of earth (if I may quote John Magee’s treacly poem) without benefit of divine intervention. Those theorists who sneer at the notion that creative imagination exists are just plain being silly; it is an obvious behavioral fact even if one chooses to believe that it is a response to physical environment or history.

Having said all that, I can finally start talking about the strange pairing of Fabio Modica’s paintings with Claire Begheyn’s assemblages. Two more different commentaries on biology and culture can scarcely be imagined.

Modica’s paintings portray the faces of beautiful women semi-obscured by bluntly applied layers of paint. We are told that Modica regards this as a commentary on our imprisonment in bodily circumstances, but also as a commentary on the physicality of paint itself, and I see no reason to doubt this. However, the metaphor of prisoners of the body also suggests the imprisonment of beautiful women in the traditions of painting and in the male gaze generally, and after three generations of feminism it is difficult to read these paintings any other way. Modica approaches his subject matter from so many startlingly different stylistic angles, however, that the work eludes interpretation.

Begheyn’s baroquely composed patterns of seashells inlaid into rearranged fragments of decorative design are something else altogether. The fact that I find some (not all) of them compelling while one female visitor said, “I just don’t get what’s with the seashells” illustrates my point that not only is there no single valid aesthetics, there is no single point of aesthetic perception from which to draw reliable conclusions. Expectation combined with the relative value we place on symmetry versus asymmetry, texture versus color, and concept versus visceral reaction result in a range of responses that are not quite equally valid (we can refine and deepen the criteria by which we judge and experience artworks), but that are indisputably varied.

I say all this because I find Begheyn’s work utterly arresting and worthy of extended contemplation, but I can picture all the reasons why persons starting from a different point and operating on different assumptions would consider it worthless or even repellent. My problem is illustrated by the fact that I keep wanting to use (and resisting) adjectives that the art world at large regards as cuss words (basically, these would be any words denoting intense emotional involvement prior to intellectual judgment).

Cathy de Monchaux is one of the globally recognized sculptors who has suffered from similar critical responses, and for some structurally parallel reasons; she engages in geometrically ordered eroticism, juxtaposes materials in ways that evoke sensual pleasure and discomfort concurrently, and can be accused, in spite of that, of being merely decorative, albeit in a way so strangely complex that the results linger in the imagination.

Begheyn is working in less complicated emotional terrain, but the range of her imagination is still considerable. She works the emotional associations and contrasting visual appearance of seashells for all they’re worth. Knobby, rough surfaces co-exist with seductively shiny and downright pearlescent ones; mussel shells turn into flowerlike explosions of symmetry; one work evokes the form of Botticelli’s Venus on the half shell (and thank you Joan Baez for that memorable phrase, in “Diamonds and Rust”). Even the works that seem less successful have amazing passages of shapes placed in particularly engaging proximity.

It is all impossibly luscious, and never to be confused with the cheap seashell compositions of craft projects. However, the negative associations of Begheyn’s materials are almost certainly one possible source of viewer distaste. This is stuff you just aren’t supposed to use in serious sculpture.

The fact that these complicated compositions make we respond positively to the forms of decorative objects I normally don’t like at all makes me think otherwise. These works return the, to my taste, unpleasantly prettified productions of culture to their biological origins, making the two meld rather than collide. By themselves, the sculpturally composed elements might devolve all too easily into a high-end shell collection; combined with the culturally inflected base, this superstructure from nature flips our expectations and turns the nature-culture dialogue into something completely different.

“Radically different” is the philosophical-artspeak cliché to fall back on, and “something completely different” is an inapposite Monty Python allusion. Its use in this utterly serious context is meant to function as a further distancing device; these works draw some of us in and make us uncomfortable about being thus drawn in by aspects of art to which we know we shouldn’t respond so deeply.

“Transgressive” seems too strong a word to apply to such seductively lovely artworks, and Begheyn certainly has no intention of violating the canons of the artworld; rather, she has fairly simple goals in mind that derive from her personal biography.

But artworks inserted into contemporary history will always be judged by criteria not at all in the mind of the maker.

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